Citizens, United

Mark Thoma quotes Daniel Little:

There is quite a bit of interest today in exploring better mechanisms for implementing the goals of democracy in more effective and broadly legitimate ways than most electoral democracies have succeeded in doing to date. A core democratic goal is to create deliberation and decision mechanisms that permit citizens to become sufficiently educated about the issues that confront the polity that they can meaningfully deliberate about them, and to find decision-making processes that fairly and neutrally permit each citizen to contribute equally to the final outcome.

The deficiencies of current democratic processes are fairly visible around the television dial, the Internet, and the town-hall meeting and state house: demagogic leaders who deliberately whip up the most negative emotions in their followers, citizens who take almost no effort to learn the details of the issues, strident and verbally violent attacks against one’s political adversaries, the excessive power possessed by economic interests to prevail through influence on agencies and legislators, and an overall lack of civility and trust within the polity. (Many of these deficiencies are highlighted in an earlier post.) It is hard to see that the public’s considered interests are the ultimate guide to our democratic actions. Some people are now referring to these flaws as the "democratic deficit" — a set of structural flaws in existing democratic institutions that lead to disappointing results.

So how can we do better?

Mark Thoma responds:

There are several important kinds of experiments underway that seem to have a lot going for them, both in principle and in practice, and these generally fall within the category of experiments in "deliberative, participatory democracy." (Here is a link to an earlier post on some of these issues.)

Particularly interesting is an experiment undertaken a few years ago in British Columbia in Canada. Following several elections that generated a great deal of popular complaint about the nature of the voting processes that led to the perverse outcomes, the Liberal Party pledged to create a "Citizens’ Assembly for Electoral Reform" to consider the existing procedures and feasible alternatives and to recommend a single reform if warranted. The LP came to power in the next election in 2000 and the government of British Columbia kept its pledge. A citizens’ assembly was created in 2004, composed of 160 citizens selected quasi-randomly from each of the province’s districts. The body was asked to deliberate carefully about existing voting procedures and feasible alternatives, and to make a recommendation to be presented in a referendum to the voters of the province as a whole. The deliberations of the assembly occurred over an eleven-month period. They were supported by a professional staff and sufficient resources to conduct their work. And in 2005 they duly issued a considered recommendation to be presented to the BC electorate. This was the single transferable vote recommendation (STV). (The Wikipedia article on the "single transferable vote" system provides a good background on the Citizens’ Assembly process as well; link.)

I’ve advocated STV before. Henry Farrell explains it:

In PR-STV, the voter votes for the candidates, recording her order of preference (Farrell 1, Tucker 2, … Sides 6 and so on). The votes are then counted. If a candidate reaches the quota with first preference votes, then she is deemed elected, and her surplus votes are distributed to other candidates, according to the second preferences recorded on them. If no candidate reaches the quota with her first preference votes, then the weakest candidate is eliminated, and his votes are distributed to the other candidates according to the second preferences, and so on, until all the vacant seats have been filled.

This is a tangent, however; the point is that there are plenty of solutions to the problem of a misinformed audience and electorate. There are ways to circumvent the problems inherent in the age of unthinking think tanks and cable news. As Bruce Bartlett said:

The larger point Mark is making here applies as well to the decline of the news media, which I have also commented on recently. One of the things the right figured out long ago is that reporters and TV producers are lazy and the ones that aren’t are too pressed for time to do more than take studies by think tanks or anyone else at face value. They don’t have the knowledge, education or resources to do fact-checking or quality control. The best they can do is separate research from institutions deemed reputable from those that are total hacks, quacks and fly-by-night operations.

One consequence of Heritage’s breakthrough in developing short, readable, time-sensitive policy analyses is that they were just as useful to the media as they were on Capitol Hill. Reporters had the same need for predigested studies written in plain English, as opposed to the sorts of books written in academese that were the stock-in-trade of traditional think tanks like Brookings.


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